Helicopter Clusters

From manhunts to military operations, Alabama has its head in the clouds with its helicopters.

Bell Helicopter, in Ozark, handles aircraft and airframe overhaul and repair for many craft, but “we specialize in overhauling Bell ‘Huey’ medium aircraft, ” said General Manager Barry Ford. As the only authorized assembly center for the Bell Huey II aircraft, the Ozark plant has built more than 230 of the aircraft, which are on duty around the world.

The Alabama State Troopers, which operate seven government surplus OH58 helicopters for searches and marijuana eradication, bought a Bell 407 helicopter in 2009 for rescue duty. This four-blade, medium-size aircraft is able to handle large loads, as well as transport observation.

“We chose the Bell 407 for its versatility, ” says pilot Lee Hamilton. “During Hurricane Katrina, we were limited in our ability to lift people out and drop in supplies. If a hurricane hits again, we want to be prepared.”

Once the training was in place, the State Troopers were able to use the Bell 407 helicopter to dump 100, 000 galloons of water to suppress fires at Orange Beach. The 14 members of the unit are an integral part of the State Troopers’ rescue programs.

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“We could do even more with rescue helicopters around the state, ” Hamilton says. “The only limitation is that we leave the rescue helicopter in the central part of the state. We have lots of requests, but we need more helicopters.”

The maintenance on all the aircraft owned by the Alabama State Troopers office is done in house. Seven of the helicopters were government surplus, and a Department of Justice grant bought the Bell 407. The Alabama Department of Homeland Security provided the training and equipment for the rescue programs, which saves the state from having to spend any extra money.

The Alabama State Troopers are able to respond anywhere in the state. The only other agency in the state with that capability is the Dale County Sheriff’s Office, and the State Troopers have worked with them on several occasions.

Tim McDonald, chief pilot and chief deputy with the Dale County Sheriff’s Office, says that office has three helicopters in their aviation division—two OH58s and one MD 600 Notar 2002 model—and they are all impeccably maintained.

“It’s not like a car, where you wait for something to break down before you repair it, ” he says.

The aviation division of the Dale County Sheriff’s Office uses the helicopters for search and rescue, surveillance and transport of personnel. The MD 600 is equivalent to the State Trooper Bell 407 in terms of engine and capabilities. It also can be used for firefighting and long line, short haul rescue.

Pilots are trained through Air Rescue System in Oregon, and the Dale County Sheriff’s Office and Alabama State Troopers work hand in hand.

“This is an expensive venture, but the lives we save are well worth it, ” says McDonald.

Bell Helicopter’s operation in Ozark has a reputation for quality refurbishments of helicopters, with as many as 40 under the wrench at any time. The Alabama State Troopers office purchased one of Bell’s refurbished 407 helicopters to use with rescues.

Helicopters also come to the aid of citizens with Omniflight, transporting patients 24/7 in a fleet of five Bell 206 Long Ranger turbine-powered helicopters. In 1981, Alabama Life Saver began operations at Carraway Methodist Medical Center in Birmingham. In 2001, Omniflight Helicopters purchased Alabama Life Saver. Since its inception, Omniflight has traveled more than 2.5 million miles and transported more than 30, 000 patients.

The presence of the military in Alabama contributes to the abundance of helicopters being fixed, flown and sold in Alabama. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., one of the world’s largest helicopter manufacturers, has operations in Troy and Huntsville. According to Frans Jurgens, who works in communications for Sikorsky, the company has both civilian and military customers worldwide who depend on them for the design, manufacture, sale and support of helicopters.

Sikorsky’s Troy branch manufactures MH-60R and MH-60S Seahawk aircraft for the U.S. Navy, as well as handling subassemblies for the UH-60M Black Hawk for the U.S. Army. The CH-148 Cyclone for the Royal Canadian Air Force and the S-61T for the U.S. State Department also are repaired at the Troy branch. Troy’s main product is the airframe assembly for the MH-60R. These airframes are built in Troy and then transported to Sikorsky’s location in Connecticut for final assembly and flight test. Troy Operations is looking to improve on the 169, 000-square-foot facility by adding a severe weather shelter, an upgraded fire monitoring and suppression system and IT network upgrades.

Sikorsky’s Huntsville Integration Center works directly with the U.S. Army Utility Program Office, designing and developing modifications for Black Hawk helicopters. In the future, this branch plans to build an avionics system integration laboratory in the Huntsville area.

According to Public Affairs Officer Randy Tisor, Redstone Arsenal, headquartered in Huntsville, who handles acquisitions of helicopters for the U.S. Army, he works closely with Fort Rucker. Fort Rucker, in turn, is the army’s headquarters for aviation, training military and civilians in aviation.

Laura Stakelum is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Dothan.

By Laura Stakelum

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